Saturday, January 05, 2008

Team Canada 2008 IIHF World Junior Champions

This was easily the least convincing, least spectacular edition of Team Canada gold medal winners over the past 4 years.

But it was also easily the most spectacular finish.

After 60 minutes and some change, Team Canada defeated Team Sweden in one of the most exciting World Junior Championship gold medal games in recent memory, winning 3-2 on the strength of an OT goal by Matt Halischuk.

Team Canada beat Team USA in a convincing fashion, having several key players step up (what about Brandon Sutter nailing James van Reimsdyk, what about Brad Marchand playing a terrific two way game, what about Chris Mason being named player of the game?), and Team Sweden beat Team Russia in OT, paving the way for a rematch between Team Canada and the only remaining undefeated team in the tournament, the Tre Kroner.

After being legitimately questioned as a useful number 1 scoring unit, Brad Marchand, Kyle Turris and Claude Giroux stepped up and had by far their best game, scoring twice in the first, both of them great examples of determination rather than skill.

Goal number one had Marchand pick the puck out of the air after a Kyle Turris shot and bank it off the Swedish goalie Jhonas Enroth. The second goal had Marchand poking the puck out from Enroth as he attempted the smother it, he then spun around behind the net and centered it perfectly to a wide open Claude Giroux on the opposite side of the net who banged it home.

The Swedes though, should be given their due as well, especially as the comeback kids of the tournament. Beginning with their 4-3 comeback victory against Canada last Saturday, then a 2-1 OT comeback victory against the Russians yesterday, and then they managed to tie the game after being behind by a couple goals in the third.

After Kyle Turris dinged one off the post early in the third, Sweden put the pressure on, dominating the game for over 15 minutes straight. From terrific individual plays by Patrik Berglund (an absolute beauty behind the net pass for Sweden's first goal, then an almost a coast to coast), to a constant flow of great passing and individual plays from Robin Figren, Team Sweden did everything possible to tie and nearly win the game. At one point Marchand looked like he was about to go after a Swedish player for a perceived slight, the camera momentarily moved to Craig Hartsburg who clearly mouthed "Marchand! Focus Marchand!!" The last minute goal by Team Sweden looked to be the last nail in the coffin for Canada who were outshot 14-3 in the third period and were completely dizzied by the Swedish attack. I'm not sure there was one Canadian player in position, including goaltender Steve Mason who really overplayed a shot at the side of the net, mimicking Jonathan Bernier's earlier mistake.

Team Canada though would not be denied. When OT started Sweden still held the play but were not nearly as dominant. After a few hesitant shifts in which Canada played a simply dump (with no chase), Canada changed strategy to dump AND chase. Matthias' forecheck caused a turnover in the corner and he drove to the net hard, making contact with Enroth as he came from behind the net. From then on the story was Matt Halischuk driving to the net hard and banging in the rebound. After that it was sheer bedlam.

The celebrations lasted longer than usual with the team charging into the stands and celebrating with the 4000 or so Canadian fans. As the choir of boys sang out the Canadian national anthem, Stefan Legein, who played only one shift in the game due to injury, yelled to the camera 'I told you Canada!!' following up with his statement during the national anthem of the quarterfinal game ("Two more baby!") and after the semifinal game ("One more baby!").

One thing I'll say about this team that is different from the rest of the 4 in a row Team Canada teams is that I never felt any one player stood out for any length of time. Early in the tournament it was the youngsters Jonathan Tavares and Steve Stamkos who played well, Drew Doughty eventually found his stride, and at the end of the tournament I though Marchand, Giroux, Turris, Sutter, and Mason who stepped it up. To give you an idea of individual efforts, not one forward from team Canada was named to the all star team, although Drew Doughty was named along with his underage Swedish counterpart Victor Hedman. Chris Mason was named the top goalie of the tournament.

10 players from this Team Canada edition are eligible to return next year to compete for the gold in Ottawa. The drive for five is only a year away.


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